2013-2014 NHL Season Preview – Central Division Predictions ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>
By Mike Ivcic and Alex Rajaniemi
Part three of the Ultimate Capper’s 2013-14 NHL season preview ventures into the land of the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks and the rest of their new NHL Central brethren. From a purely geographical standpoint, this collection of teams are the ones that will benefit the most from the new divisional format, as every team now resides in the same time zone except for the Avalanche – and as Alex well knows being a Denver native, that area tends to favor running on Central time as opposed to Pacific time anyway. That should significantly help teams like Dallas, Winnipeg, and Minnesota, all of whom have had to deal in the past with playing a significant number of road games west of the Central time zone, lowering TV ratings and increasing both travel time and cost. It should also benefit whatever team finishes third, because there’s a good chance that, given the way the talent is currently dispersed across the league, this is unquestionably the weakest division – or maybe, Alex, it’s not?
Over/under on season points in parentheses.
Oh, the lowly Central Division. Yes this grouping of seven teams is incredibly top-loaded – we all know Chicago, Minnesota, and St. Louis are the clear-cut favorites and rightfully so. But in years past, some of these teams have been yearly cup-contenders like Colorado and Dallas. It’ll be fun, although maybe a little sloppy.
Chicago is the best team in the NHL, there’s no question about it. If anyone tries to tell you differently, they’re either sniffing paint or the CO2 level in the rink is far too high. Corey Crawford is bona fide stellar, Patrick Kane finally gets an apple on his jersey, and this could be the first repeat Cup champion since Detroit a staggering fourteen years ago. Joel Quenneville knows what he has – a loaded team with record-book stature, and expectations that are even greater. They also have the best jerseys in all of sports, too – whatever that’s worth.
Minnesota, had we been privy to a full season, may have been a really tough team to compete with down the stretch. Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Nicky Backstrom, Dany Heatley, and Mikko Koivu are just the start. They have spectacular young talent in Jerry York-prospect Charlie Coyle, an electric Jason Zucker (who we saw score a filthy OT winner in the post season), and WHL superstar Nino Neiderreiter comprise a young roster with a ton of promise. It’s the state of hockey for a reason – why aren’t NHL fans in the U.S. as adamant about this Wild team as Canadians are about their teams? I don’t understand. This is a scary team that will make it to the conference finals next year.
St. Louis, in my mind’s eye, has the deepest roster in the league. They’re young, they’re knocking on the doorstep, and have an experienced head coach who knows how to win in Ken Hitchcock. Brendan Morrow and Derek Roy bring much needed veteran presence, Halak and Eliot are the best goaltending tandem we’ve seen in a while (not to mention they’re both on contract years and desperately needing to prove themselves once again), and defensemen like Pietrangelo, Bouwmeester, and Jackman are hard to argue with. The Blues are balanced (Chris Stewart led them with 38 points last year), but look for TJ Oshie to step up his game and contribute 85-95pts this season. He’s ready for a breakout, and if the Blues want to get by Chicago and Minnesota, they’ll need all of it.
The Stars and the Avalanche are my two enigmas of this division. As you all know, I’m a lifelong Colorado fan, so I’ll try and keep my bias and prayers out of this. Dallas is going through a change, but they brought in a franchise player in Tyler Seguin, one that can light up the lamp with ease and regularity. He’ll complement two-way forward and captain Jamie Benn incredibly well on that first line. From there, Dallas has a lot of third/fourth line guys on this roster until we see Kari Lehtonen (my good God the Finns know how to groom goalies) in net. I like Trevor Daley out back, but short of an incredibly old and slowing Sergei Gonchar, he has no help. If the Stars can hang around just long enough to make a blockbuster deal to push them in to a wild card spot, I think they have the capability – maybe adding Tomas Vanek from Buffalo could be the move. As for my Avalanche, they’re on the upswing on a rebuilding period. Captain Gabiel Landeskog must bounce back from an invisible sophomore season to help, however. With ultra-talented forwards like Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, and first-overall pick Nathan MacKinnon, the Avs won’t lack for scoring in Patrick Roy’s new offense. But once again, it comes down to defense. Greg Sherman made a horizontal move in trading for Cory Sarich (although it did bring in Alex Tanguay), and Erik Johnson is still a monumental bust from the ’06 draft. If Tyson Barrie and Stefan Elliot can make moves to be scoring defensemen, these Avs could have something up their sleeves, but I still believe they’re just one year out. Semyon Varlamov needs help in front of him, and he hasn’t gotten it yet. They’ll be a force to be reckoned with for years after this season.
Nashville and Winnipeg are taking up the bottom of this division. I like Smashville, I really do, but they have four third lines. Who else outside of Colin Wilson is going to put the puck in the net? Nobody, that’s who – especially with Viktor Stalberg hurt and out for the first month of the season. Their defensemen are great, and with draft steal Seth Jones learning underneath one of the top-three defensemen in the world in Shea Weber, they’ll be set for years. There just isn’t enough star power here. I love the grit, I love the intensity, but Pekka Rinne (holy crap it’s another Finn) can’t shut every team out. The Jets, as much as I hate to say it, are still the Thrashers by and by. They have mediocre goaltending and not much scoring outside of Evander Kane and Mark Scheiffle spells trouble, even if the blueline looks good with Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, and Zac Bogosian.
Ok, Alex, first off – did you just pick a tie? In a preseason preview? I believe that’s generally what we in the “sports picking” business like to call a “cop-out.” But I guess I can understand your love for your hometown team. Colorado has started putting together a nice young nucleus that their front office believes could ultimately develop into a core similar to the one that Quebec put together right before they moved to Denver and became one of the dominant teams of the late 90’s and early 00’s. That time is still a year or two away, though, and I definitely think they’ll be helped out with another high pick this year. It may not be number one or even a top five, but this just isn’t a playoff team quite yet.
Dallas, however, may be a playoff team with their acquisition of Seguin. They looked like they were going to play postseason hockey last year but faded badly down the stretch and couldn’t right the ship. That’s part of the growing process of young teams â developing the resolve and fortitude to overcome one or two losses and not let that snowball into missing out on the playoffs. I, too, am a big Lehtonen fan, and as we’ve all seen it’s quite possible for a goaltender, more than any other position in sports, to carry a team to the playoffs. They may need some help from the Pacific Division teams to beat up on each other to actually get one of the last two playoff berths in this conference, but it’s definitely possible.
To the top of the division for a second – this could be an absolutely fascinating race for the pole position between all three of the teams both Alex and I listed at the top. This season, that’s important for two reasons – one, like always, is home ice, but two is to avoid the inter-divisional matchup in the first round against whichever team finishes third. If the Blackhawks can learn from their 2010-11 season and this time avoid a Stanley Cup hangover, they should be the best team in the division. They’re still loaded offensively and as I wrote multiple times during last season’s preview their defensive corps are, in my mind, the best in the entire sport. As an added bonus, this year they brought back the goalie that won them a Cup instead of trading him to, say… San Jose. From top to bottom, this group is the deepest and most talented roster in the game (sorry, Pittsburgh) and I would be quite surprised to see them finish anywhere but first.
The other two teams, though, are also quite good and definitely could make a deep playoff run, but I’m far more interested in the Wild than the Blues. I absolutely love Minnesota too, but I am concerned about their goaltending. Nicklas Backstrom is the clear number one and certainly should be, but he’s also been injury-prone and at age 35 isn’t getting any younger. Johan Gustafsson and Josh Harding are the backups, both of whom are solid but not spectacular. Additionally, Alex listed all of their star power – and there’s plenty of it – but that’s really where the talent ends. There’s a big drop-off from the top two lines and top four defensemen to the rest of this roster, and time and time again it’s been proven that winning in the NHL requires a contribution from the entire roster. The Wild will get their wins because of the big guns, but they will definitely need some players that most of you have never heard of to raise their game if this team wants to really challenge Chicago.
To me, the Blues, Predators, and Jets are all very similar teams in one specific regard – they have a tremendous coach and captain that gets the entire team to buy into the system and they play it extremely well. The difference is that St. Louis has a far more talented roster than the other two, which is why the Blues will challenge Chicago and Minnesota for first place while the Preds and Jets will have to battle just to finish fourth and will really have to surprise to reach the postseason. Overall, this might be my least favorite division to watch because the star power simply isn’t there, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a good division – and if you’re a true hockey fan living on either coast, turn your attention towards the middle of the continent every so often and watch some really good teams that will surely re-establish some great rivalries.